When your team wins 11 matches in a row, a certain amount of swagger and confidence deservedly grows in the locker room.
However, there’s always a humbling moment lurking around the corner in college volleyball, and the question a week or so ago for the Rice University program involved how the Owls might cope when an opponent seized the upper hand.
That moment came October 12 when Rice fell behind two sets to none at home against Marshall. The Owls had to claw from the brink just to win third set 27-25. The gritty rally continued, and Rice’s hot streak lived on with a five-set triumph, the kind of dream result that teaches lessons, clarifies goals and doesn’t nick the W-L record.
Now Rice (17-4 overall, 8-0 in Conference USA) is preparing to play Friday at second-place UTSA (16-5, 8-1), which has won six in a row. UTSA’s lone league loss was in four sets at Rice almost a month ago.
Rice, ranked No. 18 in the VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Poll presented by the NIVC, and stands at No. 34 in the NCAA RPI, which gives you reason to think the Owls could be in contention for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament if they don’t win the C-USA title.
Speaking of the NCAA Tournament, Rice — a young team with just two seniors — hasn’t been since 2009.
“The Marshall win was really important. Marshall came in and executed at a high level, and our team was very confident going in. Marshall had control early and wouldn’t back down, and we were always playing catch-up and hadn’t been in that position in a while,” said Rice coach Genny Volpe, who is in her 15th year at the school. “We are usually in decent control of our side of the net, and in that match, we were not. The composure of our team was really important and pivotal in the outcome, because we could have really panicked.
“Sometimes players don’t make adjustments, because they are too emotional or they don’t slow down enough to ask, are we following the game plan, or are we just playing volleyball? They did a good job going back to what we’d talked about in the scouting session, get back to basics, control the ball better. We were very fortunate to be on the winning side of that wake-up call. We’d had success, teams will be ready to play us and give us their best, and we have to be able to match that.”
The leader has been sophomore outside Nicole Lennon, who leads the team with 314 kills (3.93/set) and is hitting a crisp .273. Another anchor is junior middle Grace Morgan, who has 212 kills (2.75/set) and is hitting .385. She leads with 79 blocks, 10 solo.
A freshman Carly Graham (477 assists, 5.96/set) and a junior Adria Martinez (451 assists, 5.71) handle the setting.
“The team has been on a long winning streak. We’ve put in a lot of hard work for that. In that (Marshall) situation, our mindset was we weren’t going to let that hard work go to waste,” Lennon said. “Our team has great chemistry, and we’re great friends with each other. Our strategy was to lean on each other, depend on each other and make sure everyone knew their job. We managed to bring it back together because of that chemistry.”
Lennon was an effective hammer as a freshman as well, but 2018 has seen a major transformation in terms of accuracy and wisdom in the choices and chances she takes. She’s become a full-rotation player, and at 6-foot-2 is able to eat up a lot of territory with her anticipation and savvy.
“Before every single match, we say let’s treat this as if it’s for the national championship,” Lennon said. “We get on the court and say, ‘this is the natty, this is the natty!’ The next one is the most important, and you can’t get to the natty unless you win this one.”
Volpe appreciates that about Lennon.
“(Nicole) a special athlete. She is aggressive and explosive. She’s really worked from her freshman year to now on her consistency,” Volpe said. “Her choices as an outside hitter, where she sees a lot of different sets and deals with out of system balls, that’s where she’s taken her game to a higher level. Her percentage is so much better; that’s been her biggest leap. She’s also a six-rotation player, so she’s getting served at … she’s a solid defender, is long, and can take up a lot of space in the back row. She’s a fun kid, too, with a smile on her face. She has a good time and loves the game.
“All spring we worked on weaknesses, and a big one was out of system hitting. We worked on that like crazy,” Lennon added. “Our setters have done a great job, and it’s taken a load off what I have to do. It’s definitely more calm (for me), and my team has helped me in that whenever we make a mistake, we bounce back way faster. We don’t get in a hole or let the other team go on a long run.”
Volpe guided Rice to the NCAA Tournament on three occasions about a decade ago and had close calls for repeat trips in 2014 and 2016. She’s tried to work in a more difficult pre-conference schedule to boost the RPI, knowing that mid-major programs may have to do more to elevate their profiles. Rice has a win over the SEC’s South Carolina and five-set losses to Texas Tech of the Big 12 and Sun Belt-leading Texas State, and the Owls lost to Southland-leader SFA and beat Ohio Valley-leader Austin Peay.
“There are times we’ve been really close; it has weighed on us a little bit, but at the same time mid-major teams have to show a lot of perseverance in the preseason scheduling and perform well in the preseason,” Volpe said.
“We have responsibilities shared among the entire team. We don’t have a captain in charge of delegating. It’s more about all being invested in what we’re trying to do. The juniors in particular have talked about what didn’t work in the past and what could we do to change and be a better unit. We have freshmen who have what we call “ben-energy” (bench energy), who are always coming up with cheers and nicknames) This is the most spirited team I think I’ve ever coached.”
Isabella Sade - photo by Mark Kuhlmann
When the bus for the Omaha volleyball team broke down three times on the Mavericks’ long trip for two conference matches, the first ones of the 2018 season, head coach Rose Shires likely had zero idea how the roster would respond.
That’s the way it goes with a team featuring 14 freshmen and/or sophomores in uniform – there’s no history to help gauge how current events might play out.
But the Mavericks held up just fine in that chaos, topping South Dakota State and North Dakota State to launch the Summit League slate in style; for now, they are 5-0 in conference (10-7 overall) and on the cusp of becoming more than a nuisance to the league’s traditional powers. Next up is Friday’s road contest vs. South Dakota (11-7, 5-1) and then Sunday’s home match with Oral Roberts (6-12, 3-3).
Head coach Rose Shires, who won her 500th career match in that North Dakota State five-set showdown, has always liked the vibe of her young squad, and she really enjoyed their collective savvy on that stop-and-start road trip.
“The team had a lot of grit and determination. The bus broke down three times on way to South Dakota, and then we were delayed to North Dakota because of waiting for new bus, and it threw our whole weekend off. For a young team, that could have been catastrophic,” Shires said. “They did a great job of understanding what wasn’t in our control, and to take control of what we could and go at it.
“That transitioned onto the floor – those teams come at you hard, and they’ll get big kills and big stuff blocks on you and get ahead in a match, and you have to fight and come back. Or you get ahead, and you have to finish it off. We have to learn with every opportunity we have. To do what they did on the road gave them a lot of confidence they could handle pressure and the unknown.”
In the middle of that mess was middle blocker Isabella Sade, a sophomore who is second on the team in kills and is a pivot point for the increasingly skilled Omaha program – she was Summit League freshman of the year in 2017, the first Mavericks to claim that honor.
“It definitely helped with our confidence. Starting out conference on the road with two road wins was huge,” she said. “There’s no place like home, but having to play in those tough places … North Dakota State’s home crown is amazing, and being able to play under that pressure and play when everyone in the gym is rooting against you, that proves we can compete with high level teams and beat them.”
And when it comes to levels, Shires could tell you a million stories. Now in her 29th season in Omaha, Shires crafted a Division-II powerhouse for decades, winning the 1996 D-II national title and reaching the NCAA tournament 11 times, but then the footing changed completely in 2011 when the volleyball program jumped up to D-I.
The change was sudden, and the resulting impact on the win-loss front was hardly surprising, as the Mavericks have lost 19 or more matches in five of the seven seasons in Division I. But as you’d gather from how they handled the bus fiasco in September, Shires and her team don’t sulk in difficult situations.
“Going from being a perennial power in Division II and having opportunities to win national championships and conference championships every year, and then making the transition … the biggest difficulty for us was not having the advance knowledge we were going to Division I, for recruiting purposes,” Shires said. “It’s difficult to catch up in a quick fashion. To take players on my team, who were stellar Division II players … the first two years, the only teams that would play us outside a few of the ones in the conference we were transitioning to, were regional (powers) like Iowa State, Kansas State, Kansas, Minnesota.
“It was very difficult for our players to know every time they stepped on the floor, they really didn’t have an opportunity to win and compete. We had to be very direct talking to the players about what we were defining success as … to give them building blocks.”
In fact, the Mavericks nearly sprang a colossal upset in the 2015 Summit League tournament, reaching the final and coming up just three points short from claiming a berth in the D-I NCAA event.
Hopes for a 2018 version of a tournament run will rest heavily on freshman right side Sadie Limback (the team’s kills leader) and classmate Sydney Case (the setter, averaging 11.51 per set), along with four essential sophomores in Sade, Claire Leonard (161 kills), Anna Blaschko (166) and Claire Mountjoy (team leader in digs).
How all these fresh faces work out who gets to lead by example, by volume, by presence – that’s a process that hasn’t broken down by the side of the road.
“All of us are different, and we all bring something different to the table. One of us may really loud, one of us may be calm, cool and collected, and we all bring a piece of ourselves to the court,” Sade said. “We are figuring out how to make it all jell together. Our coaches have said we have a chance to do something special, so the standards are high and at practice they make sure we are always pushing to be better.
“We want to win the serve and pass battle, get opponents out of system, because that makes it easier on our defense and block. We also want to focus on limiting other team’s runs – if we get two points they get one; if they get three, we get four.”
“The beauty of this team and this group is they really have embraced and honor each other for their own individual personalities. This is a team that is led by committee,” Shires added. “It just works, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had a team that clicked this well, without any forced or pressed communication. This is not a team that likes to be yelled at or likes to yell at each other. We have goofy kids, some who are loud and boisterous and some who are quiet and introverted, but they all work together well. It’s not something we planned and designed – it’s just who they are, working and leading together."
Jordan Thompson of Cincinnati
On the eve of the 2017 volleyball season, Cincinnati’s fearsome outside hitter Jordan Thompson was abruptly sidelined with a UCL injury to her elbow.
UCL, like, the Bearcats’ opponents were Unbelievably Crazy Lucky to see her in street clothes on the bench all season.
Well, 2018 looks more familiar to Cincinnati now that Thompson’s furious set of skills is back in place.
The Bearcats are 10-4 overall (and No. 11 in last week’s VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Poll presented by the NIVC) after winning their American Athletic Conference opener last Friday at East Carolina.
In that match, the 6-foot-4 Thompson, a junior from Edina, Minnesota, had 18 kills, hit .548 after making one error in 31 attacks, and had an ace and 10 digs.
Through the last time NCAA stats were updated on September 21, Thompson led the nation by a healthy margin in kills with 342 — Lindsey Ruddins of UC Santa Barbara is second with 252 — and kills per set (6.22).
She’s shrugged off the injury and ready to defend her 2016 AAC player-of-the-year honors.
Thompson is trusting her arm more each day, and also believing that last year’s unpleasant off-ramp will not define her college experience.
“It was a little bit upsetting, obviously, because I knew it would make me miss the season. But I got the redshirt and knew I had two years left with the recruits we had coming in,” said Thompson, who has topped 30 kills in five matches this season.
“I tried to look at it as a blessing disguise, and then try to come back and be better. It was a different role, being there to help teammates. I learned a lot watching the game an entire year, and I feel I see things better. That’s definitely translated to how I play on the court now. It’s helped a lot on defense (watching for tips and tells from hitters).”
Cincinnati was a modest 13-19 last year, a bitter pill after back-to-back seasons with more than 20 wins and a real sense that under head coach Molly Alvey, the program was on the rise. But Alvey didn’t panic, and the roster ended up with a pretty solid 2017 campaign, coming up just short in the conference race when other injuries derailed their hard work on the last two weekends of the season.
“Losing a player like Jordan, and the timing of it, was pretty critical to the team. We work hard on being good teammates; when you lose a significant player like Jordan at that point, no matter who you are, that’ll be a huge mental task,” said Alvey, in her seventh year running the Bearcats. “And the other key point is, if we didn’t have toughest non-conference schedule last year, it’d have to be No. 2 or 3, because we were stacked with competition. I felt like we needed that experience, but to take a hit like that and be blindsided … the team did as well as it could in that moment.
“In the long term, we played really well in conference. I think that all set us up for (today’s) mental toughness we show. To do what they did under those circumstances … we were definitely handcuffed.”
One indicator that Cincinnati is next to unflappable is seen in how the team responded to senior setter Jade Tinglehoff getting hurt at the Colorado State Invitational at the start of September. Freshman Armania Heckenmueller has stepped into the job, and the team has been sturdy enough to keep improving instead of backtracking or being tentative with the lineup change.
“You put freshman in that role, that’s a heavy task in that schedule. What we’ve done since is pretty impressive, and it’s all about how you respond,” Alvey said. “You might want to give less and feel sorry for yourself, but we’ve had contributions from everyone in a lot of different roles to elevate and support our freshman. When you have to move people in and out, but still sustain a level of play, we don’t point fingers. And this has been great experience for the younger kids; we can be creative as coaches, and the team has responded.”
Thompson knows she’ll have to do more than just blindly pound away on offense, as defenses are well aware of her reputation and will do anything short of sitting on her shoulders to combat her power. But an athlete thoughtful enough to not let a severe injury keep her down is the type who loves the idea of lifting her game — she’s played a ton of back row this year for the first time in her college career, and she maintained superior discipline on her diet and conditioning while she was hurt.
“It’s become clear people are (scouting me) and planning for what I bring to the table; I’m always working on different shots and not doing the same thing every time,” Thompson said. “People can see the film; I want to mix up the shots and keep developing as a player over the season. I try not to focus on the stats – it’s sometimes cool to see that, but it’s not something I pay a lot of attention to. We’ve seen how much we’ve grown in the preseason, and we have a lot of momentum now. We know what we are capable of and are excited to see how conference will play out for us.”
“She wants to learn. Zero percent of her thinking is that she’s the player she is. She’s constantly looking to get better,” Alvey added. “There are things to work on. She had to learn to use that arm again. The muscles, the movements aren’t natural, and for us who see her all the time, there are things that still don’t look right. There’s another level I know she will get to by the end of the season because she’s still re-training herself.”
Cleveland State coach Chuck Voss and senior Rachel Stover
Some defeats provide many useful lessons and coaches will tell you that good information comes from the experience, so it’s hard to be negative.
But other losses?
For the Cleveland State volleyball program, nothing hurt more than a September 15 defeat against Kent State, a 3-1 setback that highlighted the roster’s main issues of leadership and togetherness. In some ways, the problems didn’t come out of the blue — after three straight Horizon League regular-season and tournament championships, the Vikings were a little thin on savvy veterans and very deep in fresh faces.
But after the wake-up call last month, the alert has been sounded about Cleveland State, which stands at 4-0 in league play (10-6 overall) heading into Friday’s home match against IUPUI.
The roster has a shared vision, with an impressive batch of younger players contributing under pressure and forming the nucleus that might fuel another powerful run under 19th-year coach Chuck Voss.
“We lost to Kent State, a match we felt we never should have lost, and after that we had a sit down with the juniors and seniors and said, this is coming down to you. ‘What are you willing to do?’"
They won their next four matches.
“The staff had met two hours before with a wide-ranging list of questions and we went down the line, asking all of them. Everybody said yes and bought in, and the last three weeks they’ve done everything they said they would. It’s been the difference –- when things don’t go our way, those girls in particular are fighting and supporting each other, staying positive and fighting through those lulls.”
“We responded well. We were just so pissed off that we lost, and we knew we had to work harder. We were mad, and it sparked us,” said senior Rachel Stover, who is second on the team in kills and blocks. “We have great talent in every position, but we had to start pulling together the same direction. I feel we are on the right track; we have to keep working together and holding each other accountable. We all have the same goals, and we know it won’t be an easy ride to get there. We have to mentally prepare before each match, and battle for every point.”
Fellow senior and defensive specialist Rachael Dohar contributes a strong vocal presence on the court, and the Vikings are bolstered by a slew of youngsters.
Sophomore Emily DeGeorge leads the team in kills (at 5-foot-9); freshman setter Christina Grecol has been a revelation, and sophomore Hannah Greene has evolved from a part-timer last year to a thumping force in the middle. To cap it off, new DS Mackenzie Connor is considered by Voss to be the best one he’s had as a freshman.
“Emily is one of the best six-rotation outsides I’ve had. There’s lots on her plate, unfortunately maybe too much for a sophomore,” Voss said. “Hannah has taken a full-time role now, and both those kids are fully committed and will do whatever it takes. And we’ve seen Christina be very effective as a floor general. You’d like your freshmen to just go out and play, but there’s a lot on her plate and she’s handling it well.”
“We were nervous going in and not sure what to expect, but these younger kids are stepping up and filling the roles we need. I really like how we’re playing right now; we’re pushing one another in practice to get better,” Stover said. “I’m not going to settle. Each of our opponents are giving us their best shot every time out, and we won’t take any teams lightly. I look forward to all of us getting better.”
The preseason choice to claim another Horizon League title, the Vikings face a meaty challenge after Friday, with four consecutive road matches, including two healthy bus trips into Wisconsin. Remaining tests include road matches against Green Bay and Northern Kentucky, who probably have the best chance to dethrone Cleveland State.
Thanks to that sobering moment against Kent State, it’s hard to imagine the Vikings flinching at the challenges ahead.
“After last season we knew we had a gap, primarily in our leadership – that was the biggest question mark. We have two seniors, both doing a good job, but you win championships with juniors and seniors,” Voss said. “We’ve been talking about it since the spring and honestly, the last three weeks or so, we’ve seen dramatic change from quite a few players. That’s why we are starting to string together a few victories.”
“It’s hard to believe I’m a senior; I love these girls and will miss them and the times we’ve had on and off the court,” Stover added. “The relationships … that’s the main reason we’ve played so well over these past few years, because of the chemistry we have. We bring that out into the court and have fun, and I’m going to miss that.”
Freshman setter Emily DeWalt
After 38 years at the helm at Texas State, coach Karen Chisum thought she’d seen almost everything.
But in her 39th year, there have been times in the 2018 season where she’s moved a few players in and out of the lineup, only to notice that suddenly there were five freshmen on the court. That’s usually something coaches do only if they are desperate or trying to send a message.
The Bobcats are indeed sharing some important news –- this batch of newcomers might be made up of unique and even special ingredients.
After beating Little Rock in four on Friday and then sweeping Arkansas State on Saturday, Texas State sits at 13-5 overall and 4-0 atop the Sun Belt Conference, with most of the eight-player freshman class doing some of the heavy lifting.
Chisum felt comfortable with her roster’s makeup from the start, figuring 17-year assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Tracy Smith had the right vision, prompting Chisum to get the newcomers in the mix early and often.
“There’s no doubt, we’ve had a few very good recruiting classes, and this most recent one is probably the best recruiting class we’ve had in 15-20 years,” Chisum said. “We’ve been successful in keeping kids here, and it’s rare to ever have anybody want to leave.”
Chisum has guided the Bobcats to a 113-60 record the past five seasons and has 881 career victories.
“I knew we were going to have to get some early playing time for the freshmen, because they had to get used to our coliseum and to the faster pace, playing above the net. I’ve looked on the court on occasion and seen five freshmen, and I look around and think, what am I doing? But it’s been fun, and they’ve gotten the experience we’ve definitely needed heading into conference.”
One indicator of future success is maturity, and Texas State has certainly displayed that in 2018. In their third match of the season against LSU, senior outside hitter Megan Porter tore her ACL. Aside from the shock and disappointment, the Bobcats had to solve a lineup hole, and they did that with Florida transfer Cheyenne Huskey moving to outside, where she anchors the offense with senior Amy Pflughaupt.
Huskey was one of the setters in the team’s 6-2 offense, but her shift meant freshman Emily DeWalt would become primary setter, and she’s been beyond solid, averaging 10.59 assists per set.
She’s the only freshman to be named Sun Belt setter of the week three times in a season, and that’s only through September.
“When Megan went down, we were all nervous, because she was such a big part of our offense. We came together and said we can’t let this knock us off our (stride), and we are still out there chasing a (championship),” said DeWalt, who played for the powerful San Antonio Magic club and is tasked with replacing one of the program’s all-time greats in setter Erin Hoppe.
“Cheyenne stepped in, transitioned into it fast and has done a great job; we’ve kept trucking and doing want we were from the beginning. I was super excited to see that big freshman class. We were all going to start from the same place, start together and help each other out, and contribute whatever we could for the program.
“I tried not to think about it (replacing Hoppe), and to just trust my game. I wanted to focus on my game and not necessarily who I was replacing, and so far it seems to be working.”
“Emily’s volleyball IQ is very high, and she makes so many great decisions. We expected Emily to be on the court, but we expected her as a back-line setter only,” Chisum said. “We made the move with Cheyenne, and Emily hasn’t hurt us on the block. She’s a delight, and an intense (athlete) who is a likeable kid. She’s got high work ethic, everyone respects her, and we’re lucky to have her.”
Jillian Slaughter, a club teammate of DeWalt’s, has played very well as a freshman, as has Janell Fitzgerald, a 6-foot-1 thumper who is still just 17 years old. Fitzgerald played with Texas Advantage in her club days, making huge strides last year on Ping Cao’s 17 Black squad. Chisum is also getting mileage from walk-on defensive specialist Kayla Granado (Austin Juniors), and loves the potential of 5-9 freshman Sarabi Worsley-Gilbert (OTVA), whose explosive ability allows her to touch above 10 feet.
The Bobcats played a wicked non-conference schedule (losses coming versus Baylor, Marquette, LSU, Texas, and Kentucky), but they’re in a good place in the Sun Belt.
“We learned a lot; first of all, that we could compete with teams like that. Others would be scared to be thrown in against such high-ranked teams, but we took it and learned from it,” DeWalt said. “If we play our game, we can compete with teams as highly ranked as that.”
“I want our kids to see the upper echelon, the (national top 40) level we want to get to; secondly, if they’re not on the schedule, you can’t beat them,” added Chisum. “Anything can happen at any time … but it’s true, after the first two weeks I looked and thought maybe I did over-schedule. We got back on track, and we competed with Texas and Kentucky. We had to move people around, and I could tell the team afterward there’s no one we will face in our conference that’s better than Baylor or Kentucky or Texas.”